By Tom Vartabedian
---- — They call themselves Rudy’s Tigers — a relentless, never-say-die bunch of fitness buffs who are putting old age to shame.
You’ll find them most any day at the Greater Haverhill YMCA working the treadmills and elliptical machines, fighting off the tired bones and aching bodies that sometimes impede folks even younger than them.
Talk to 90-year-old Ted DeRoche, the patriarch of the group, and he’ll be the first to admit that exercise is a way of life. Doing it with others — your best friends — makes it more compatible.
DeRoche spent his working years at AT&T Technologies and his non-working years visiting a wife who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease for eight years. Only when he climbed mountains did he hand over the visitation rights to another member of his family. They came anyway at other times so DeRoche could maintain a life of fitness.
The “professor” of Rudy’s Tigers, as he’s known, is Dr. Gene Grillo, another AT&T product who spent 35 years teaching physiology and biochemistry at Boston University. For 16 years, he was a city councilor in Haverhill. Few have loved this city more than him.
Then there’s Morris Piccolo. You may know him as the city’s Realtor emeritus. Despite his 84 years, he’s still selling houses, bouncing up and down the streets with many a community interest, and dodging one physical impediment after another.
The “baby” of the group, at age 76, is Bernie Clohisy, the guy who’s a self-appointed sergeant-at-arms, keeping the crew in order. He, too, is an AT&T retiree and has kept Gazette readers informed over the years with his nostalgic snippets.
They are all protégés of Rudy Valenzi, a former fitness director at the YMCA, who started this group 45 years ago. At one time, they numbered 300. Now, there are four originals remaining. Another Tiger, Danny Piccolo, hopped aboard two years after the group formed.
Being in such venerable company brings back some memories.
All are stellar products of the Haverhill High athletic scene, like their children. Now they have grandchildren setting their own trend. Few in the city were better at swimming than Martha Clohisy or played better basketball than young Teddy DeRoche or football like Paul Grillo. No doubt, chips off the old block.
“I owe him my life,” the elder DeRoche said of Valenzi. “Rudy talked me into quitting cigarettes. He taught us to take care of ourselves and enjoy the beauty life had to offer. Sometimes, we take those privileges for granted.”
These Rudy’s Tigers talk of those who have gone before them, people like Del Bracci, Sid Lafey, Nordo Nissi, Spike Valenti, Al Burton, Les Brindis, Dick Bluestein, Frank Donahue, Wes Shaw, Elie LaBombarde and the inimitable Fred Battistini, who died last year.
“A toast to all of them,” the remaining members said in unison, raising their water glasses at a recent lunch. “Let’s hear it for Fred and the others.”
At 88, Battistini personified the age of Rudy’s Tigers. He swam in the Massachusetts Senior Games and brought back eight gold medals from Harvard University. He was a true Tiger, working at his Haverhill TV & Appliance shop into his 90th year.
Right up there as a chief workout artist was Hy Der Bogosian, a long-time confectionary business owner. Drill sergeant was more like it.
“When he finished with you at a workout, you could have drowned in your own sweat,” said Piccolo. “Hy was by the book – all business.”
And you could never forget Wesley Shaw. The funeral director made the “Y” his hiatus. He’d go through a workout without a strand of hair out of place.
“He could have done it with a suit and tie,” laughed Piccolo. “He’d come out of it looking like Fred Astaire.”
As far as women go, few could match the endurance of Lucinda Nolet. She was sister to all, except when it came to a workout. First came the exercises, then the two-mile walk to Bradford, before stopping at the coffee shop. They’d split a multigrain muffin to keep the calorie count in check.
The very first issue of “Tiger Tales” is dated May, 1968. Rudy Valenzi’s memory is etched inside those pages.
One notice had him reaching out to all the “dropouts” of the fitness world, those who appeared drained by the activity. He wrote, “The picture of good health requires a happy frame of mind. Get a workout in and it’ll make your day. Be the Tiger that you can be.”